Behind the European Plastics Pact: How Europe drives circularity and tackles the plastic waste challenge through collaboration and convergence
While the health and safety of communities remains the world's primary focus point, solving the global plastic waste issue cannot wait, either. The work goes on, even in a global pandemic. This Q&A gives a prompt lowdown on the European Plastics Pact—a progressive collaborative initiative uniting the plastic industry, governments and sustainability organizations in the shift towards a circular plastics economy.
The planet needs a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. One tool for that is the European Plastics Pact—a historic agreement between governments, forerunning businesses and other organizations, such as business associations and NGOs, within the European Economic Area. Together, the signatories have committed to ambitious 2025 targets aiming to accelerate the systemic shift towards a circular plastics economy. The Pact is signed by over 100 signatories and counting, as it is still open for joining.
Why is the European Plastics Pact important?
The European Plastics Pact is more than a black-on-white agreement. Essentially, it is a platform through which governments, companies and other organizations collaborate to navigate the route to a circular plastic economy in Europe. The pact regularly brings together the whole European plastic value chain, including plastic producers, retailers, recyclers, brands and other organizations linked to plastics value chain, as well as lawmakers shaping plastics legislation. Together, stakeholders discuss challenges and solutions and share best practices. To this date, a collaboration this extensive has been rare in the plastics value chain.
What is the relationship between the European Plastics Pact, other agreements and plastics legislation?
The European Plastics Pact is a voluntary agreement without sanctions. There are other voluntary plastic pacts, commitments and related initiatives in Europe and other regions, as well as national ones. However, the European Plastics Pact can provide answers to cross-national challenges that national ones can’t tackle. These might include, for example, guidance for product and packaging design, data collection and monitoring, as well as ensuring there’s a good supply of recycled plastic across the continent.
While voluntary commitments can accelerate the shift towards a circular plastic economy, governmental legislation has a crucial role to play, too. In fact, the European Plastics Pact was initiated by environmental ministries in the Netherlands and France. Arnoud Passenier, Senior Program Manager Sustainable Innovations at the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure & the Environment, explains the background: “Changing legislation is a slow process and can only take place if there are sustainable alternatives. When innovations are yet to be found, a voluntary approach is more effective and works faster. For this, commitments are the first step. Looking for new innovations together, as well as implementing and scaling up successful projects, will give the impact we are looking for. That’s what the added value of the European Plastics Pact is—apart from the broad involvement of 14 member states, which we can’t find in other forums.”
Can a voluntary plastics pact change the plastic industry?
Rightfully, there have been some doubts with regards to the European Plastics Pact—as any major initiative should have. Critical questions about the pact’s impact and limitations are answered by David Rogers, Head of International Resource Management at WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), a global sustainability charity providing the Secretariat and monitoring function for the European Plastics Pact.
Can a voluntary plastic pact without sanction have real impact?
“Voluntary agreements can be really impactful—we have research by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and WRAP ourselves that proves this. Compared to legislation, they are faster to implement, more agile and more likely to bring the industry along positively. Agreements also enable a dialogue among businesses and governments about what can be achieved by the industry when we work collaboratively.”
Could the European Plastics Pact send policymakers the wrong message that the plastic waste problem can be solved without legislation?
“That is a really important question. The European Plastics Pact is working closely with the European Union to ensure there is no duplication of efforts, or any risk of the perception that the job will be done without the need for any regulation or legislation. We fully expect the European Union to continue with the policy and regulation changes in line with the set direction. What we have found in similar agreements is that having a dialogue among businesses and governments around agreed targets allows businesses to make progress before legislation is brought into place. The dialogue also guides governments on what legislation is required and helps businesses to take the necessary steps to respond to upcoming legislation.”
Why does the European Plastics Pact focus on increasing recycling instead of minimizing plastic use?
“The European Plastics Pact does have a target for a plastic use reduction, and we have stated that 10% of that should come from an absolute reduction. But plastic still has an important role to play in our lives, especially protecting food and medical supplies. The aim is not to get rid of plastic completely, but to ensure it's only used where it's needed. And when it is used, it should remain in the economy and not end up in the environment.
Moreover, the arguments for increasing plastic’s recycling rate are strong. WRAP’s own evidence built up over the years shows that recycled plastic has a lower environmental impact than virgin plastic across a range of issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions, toxins harmful to humans and acidification.”
Has the COVID-19 pandemic decreased the plastics industry’s focus on sustainability initiatives?
“This is something we're monitoring very closely at WRAP. Surely, it's too early to say what the impact of the pandemic will be on the plastic industry across the board. However, the indications are that interest in tackling plastic pollution is as strong as ever amongst European Plastics Pact members and their customers. Traditionally, sinking oil prices decrease the demand for recycled plastic. However, having a firm commitment to increase the amount of recycled content can help the plastics industry to mitigate that effect.”
What is Neste looking to gain from the European Plastics Pact?
Neste signed the European Plastics Pact in March 2020 and is also a member of the steering group responsible for decision-making related to the pact. Questions about the European Plastic Pact’s benefits for companies are answered by Neste’s Acting Head of Public Affairs, Renewable Polymers and Chemicals Francisca Melia and Vice President, Renewable Polymers and Chemicals Isabella Tonaco.
Why did Neste sign the European Plastics Pact?
Francisca Melia: “Signing the pact was a decision we didn’t take lightly. The pact aims for decreased consumption of virgin fossil resources, and that is not an easy goal to commit to for most stakeholders in the plastic value chain. There were many parties taking part in the initial discussions that in the end couldn’t join. However, the pact puts focus on solutions that are key to Neste’s business, such as renewable feedstock for plastics production and increasing circulation of plastic materials. We decided to go for it, as it is in Neste’s DNA to be a pioneering company.” What benefit does joining the European Plastics Pact bring to companies, including Neste? Francisca Melia: “When we first came together across the plastics value chain, the conversations were somewhat challenging. There were so many different stakeholders in one room, from feedstock providers to recyclers, brand owners, supermarkets and municipalities. Just clarifying the terminology will help us partner up more quickly in the future. It’s also great for Neste that the European Plastics Pact brings visibility to the need for circular plastic solutions. It’s more important than ever that we keep the public eye and the political focus on solving the plastic waste issue. Another thing we’re happy about is that the collaboration gives us the opportunity to discuss what problems some companies in the plastics value chain face and whether our product could help them.”
What change do you wish the European Plastics Pact will bring?
Isabella Tonaco: “Waste management has not developed at the same pace as plastic consumption. What we need the most is using circular ways of thinking to solve the plastic waste problem. Plastic itself is not the issue but the fact that we don’t use them efficiently, to the very end of the material’s life cycle. We should become more conscious about the fact that the material does not necessarily reach the end of its life cycle when it is discarded after use. I hope that by collaborating through the value chain, we can find new ways to design, reduce, reuse and recycle the valuable plastic we have. We know how these comprehensive circular models work in theory—now we need to bring them into action together.“
Neste's solution for plastics
Neste has developed a drop-in solution from renewable and recycled raw materials that can be used on its own or in a blend to create plastic products of identical quality to those made out of conventional raw materials based on virgin fossil oil.